Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Seeing Clearly

As one of the language groups of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Chinookan is also the source for the name of this weblog. Skookum: strong, stout, brave; fine, splendid--is also a commonly used term in the Pacific Northwest for something well done, be it a work of art, craft, or social enterprise.

So out of respect for the lower Columbia River peoples who played host and participated for millenia at the largest indigenous rendezvous in North America, the hosts at this cyber rendezvous known as Skookum wish to honor the people called Chinook by offering this little story from HistoryLink.

The lower Columbia River valley was one of the most densely populated areas in aboriginal North America. At the time of initial contact with whites in the 1790s, an estimated 16,000 Chinookan-speaking people lived along the 200 miles of river between Cape Disappointment and The Dalles, including the Chinook on the north (Washington) bank and the Clatsop on the south (Oregon) side. Forty years later, the population numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands.

As the first of the Columbia River tribes to have contact with whites, the Chinook were the first to feel the effects of European-introduced diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and smallpox. But it was an 1829 epidemic of what was probably malaria that had the most devastating impact on the tribe. Called "ague fever" in historical accounts, malaria was brought up from California by fur traders working for the Hudson's Bay Company. The disease “catastrophically rearranged the human geography of the river”.

Four-fifths of the native population died in a single summer. Whole villages disappeared. Many others were so reduced that they consolidated. Ethnographer James G. Swan found 112 Indians living near the mouth of the river in 1834, but most were Chehalis.

In 1855, the federal government lumped the Chinooks in with five other tribes, offering them land on the Quinault Reservation -- 100 miles north of the Chinook lands -- but refusing to recognize their sovereignty as a separate nation. In the eyes of the government, the Chinooks had ceased to exist as a tribe. Some tribal members, however, continued to live in their traditional homelands and to engage in traditional activities, including fishing, hunting, and woodcarving. In 1979, their descendants filed the first of several petitions to gain federal recognition, and the health, education, housing, and other benefits that come with it.

The tribe won an apparent victory in January 2001, when officials in the outgoing Clinton Administration granted formal recognition. However, in July 2002, the Bush Administration revoked that status. Representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the Chinooks did not qualify for recognition because there was a long gap in their history, from about 1880 to 1930, when they did not act as a tribe.

The revocation came just two days after a White House luncheon during which President Bush called upon tribal and governmental officials to cooperate in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Among those invited to hear the president speak was Chinook tribal chairman Gary Johnson. Stunned and angered by the reversal, he pledged that the tribe, now with about 2,000 members, would continue fighting for recognition. "If the government thinks we're going away because they have made this decision, they're absolutely wrong," he said (The Seattle Times, 2002).

On November 18, 2005 -- 200 years to the day after the arrival of the Corps of Discovery -- artist Maya Lin stood in front of a fish-cleaning table crafted from a 12-ton chunk of Columbia basalt and talked about her vision for the Confluence Project. The occasion was the dedication of the first of seven sites to be developed in an ambitious project to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the Northwest. The goal, Lin said, is not celebration as much as understanding. At each site, she hopes to encourage visitors to look at the land not just as it is today, but as it was in the past, from differing points of view, as well as what it might be in the future. ...

At each of the seven sites (five in Washington, two in Oregon), Lin is working with landscape architects to restore natural environments. Artworks will incorporate excerpts from the explorers' journals or stories that show the perspective of native peoples. "Every site tells us a story of what the place is, from an ecological point of view, from a Native American point of view and also, using Lewis and Clark's words, to see this place as it was 200 years ago," she says (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2005).

At Cape Disappointment, the fish-cleaning table demonstrates the subtlety and nuance of Lin's work. The table, with a sink at one end, is carved from a 16-foot long block of basalt, which Lin herself selected from a quarry in Eastern Washington. It replaces a battered, rusty industrial sink near the boat launch on Baker Bay. The new table is both beautiful and functional. But it also carries a message. Engraved on the surface is a Chinook creation myth. The etching will help grip the slippery fish while they're being cleaned. It's also a reminder that Chinook fishermen were catching salmon here thousands of years before white men came. "It's subtle," says Lin. "I hate to preach. But we can give insight" (Smithsonian).

A pathway just north of the table leads to a viewing platform overlooking Baker Bay. Another path takes visitors to a grove of alders on the edge of Waikiki Beach (named after a group of shipwrecked sailors from Hawaii), on the ocean side of the peninsula. Signposts will illustrate the entire 4,100-mile journey of Lewis and Clark from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Cape, through many lands and past many Native Americans. The walkway will end in a circle of seven large pieces of cedar driftwood, gathered from the beach. The circle reflects the seven directions of Native American culture: north, south, east, west, up, down, and in.

The installation at Cape Disappointment is expected to be completed in April 2006. Organizers hope to have the entire Confluence Project completed by 2007, but that may be overly optimistic, since designs for several of the locations have yet to be finalized and only about two-thirds of the overall budget of $22.8 million has been raised (as of January 2006). Each of the seven sites has its own challenges, from gaining access to railroad right-of-way for a land bridge at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to getting consensus from six separate tribes on a compass design at Sacajawea State Park at Pasco.

Lin is less concerned about getting it done on time than about getting it right. "I'm making decisions as to what sides of history get laid down," she says. "I hope I see clearly" (The Oregonian).

Postscript: In July 2009, I visited the confluence of the Snake and Columbia, and while the compass had yet to be installed, I was astonished by an interpretive sign noting 16 million salmon passed by there annually during the pre-settler era. As of July 2010, the Chinook Indian Tribe had yet to regain federal recognition.


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